I just received my annual renewal notice from the American Planning Association and, as I did last year when I wrote To AICP or Not to AICP, I’m struggling over what to do. My renewal is $465 – more than four times my professional engineering license – which is not a modest sum. Unlike many who carry the AICP certification, I pay for mine myself out of my own pocket. And unlike many who carry the AICP certification, I do not have the ability (or desire) to increase my salary in recognition of this certification. I find myself saying once again: why would I renew?

The answer, pathetically, is because I always do. It isn’t because I have any particular pride in the certification, that it opens any doors for me or that it even conveys anything substantive to all but a handful of people. I pay for it because it is a certification I achieved and, quite frankly, my wife would be appalled if I allowed it to lapse.

So I’m reading the letter from the new executive director of the APA, a guy named James M. Drinan (who, by the way, carries the professional initials JD after his name, a designation I do not believe requires annual dues to the mother university from which the law degree was bestowed). His letter asks a question that is supposed to make a pitch for why I should renew:

Are you getting the most out of your membership?

This question misses the mark completely. What I get is not nearly as important to me as what I’m part of. For the sake of discussion, however, let’s pretend that paying my dues to APA is simply a transactional undertaking, similar to what a AAA membership would be. If I’m paying for benefits, what are they and are they worth the price? As instructed in the letter, I went to planning.org/benefits/ for “a refresher on some of the rewards of belonging to our association.”

Here they are:

1.       Publications. I get – or more precisely, my circular file gets – a copy of Planning magazine. I apparently also get some electronic newsletters and, of course, I need no reminder that I can get discounts on overpriced books at the APA store (they continually mail me reminders). As someone who spends large segments of their life reading, reading and reading – last year I got through around 60 books along with a regular subscription to two magazines and three newspapers – I have a refined approach to reading. I don’t spend time on stuff that doesn’t interest me. As someone who has infinite interests and is voracious at gaining knowledge, I’ve not cracked an APA publication in years. Years!

2.       Chapters. Alight, so I spend $50 to support the local chapter. I can handle that. There are some good people there trying to do good things. I appreciate the announcements and the ability to share information with other local members. If this is a transaction only, I don’t pay $50 for the services, but I don’t feel like I’m getting totally robbed.

3.       Divisions. This is a little tricky because belonging to a division – most of which are “online communities, sharing news and viewpoints through web-based discussions and publications” – costs additional money. I don’t belong to any divisions so this is not a direct benefit to me, transactionally speaking.

4.       Professional Certification. This is where the transactional nature of my analysis gets tricky. For this to make sense, the financial benefits I get in terms of new opportunities, career advancement and prestige would need to provide me earnings greater than my dues. I’m not in a job where certified planners have written the qualifications to exclude non-certified planners, so I don’t benefit from that form of protectionism. I suppose it is possible I could someday take on a contract that required a certified planner, but I’ve worked for two decades and never come across one written that way. So for me to make more back than my dues, AICP would need to be a brand with a significant amount of prestige. I don’t sense any prestige for the brand except within the profession itself.

In order to have that prestige, the APA needs to lead an effort to systematically update the planning profession, to modernize it beyond zoning, regulation and bureaucracy. A handful of its members are doing this, but the organization itself seems stuck. Here is what I wrote earlier this year:

We need the planning profession to not only be relevant but we need planners to be leaders in our communities. The current planning paradigm is stuck in 1950’s thinking. It is old, stodgy and defensive. It not only clings to dogmatic beliefs about zoning, projections and centralized planning but fails in the most important duty of any credentialed profession: to systematically challenge itself to improve.

APA comes across as less concerned about great planners and great places than in ensuring continued employment for their dues-paying members (and collecting said dues). In that regard, they closely resemble the American Society of Civil Engineers, an organization I hold in particular disdain.

Everything I’ve seen in subsequent months has reinforced my prior beliefs on this.

5.       APA Profile and Member Directory. Essentially LinkedIn but with only planners. This isn’t creating value for me.

6.       Education Opportunities. Yes, as a member of APA, I have the opportunity to overpay – although slightly less than non-members – for the opportunity to attend the APA national conference. Since we’re looking at this through my personal value equation, I stopped going after Minneapolis. That was quite a while ago. Perhaps things have changed, but I’ve looked at the lineup and it doesn’t appear that way. Still primarily preaching ever so gently, and with a very positive and affirming spin, to the choir. I’m not sure if they would still reject my speaking proposals – they have rejected me many times – but I wouldn’t be surprised. That may come across as sour grapes, but it really isn’t. The Curbside Chat is something every planner should hear. The fact that it wasn’t worthy of an APA session is really pathetic. And telling.

7.       Communications Tools. I find this very interesting and, now that I know it is here, I may come back to it and see how the APA advises its members on delivering a “positive, values-based messages about planning to key audiences.” I'm guessing it will be worth a blog post. Maybe I need help with positive messaging about planning, but I don’t seem to have a problem communicating. I certainly would not pay for this service so the transactional value isn’t there.

8.       Planners’ Salary Survey. I could go on and on about salary inflation in government and the way professional organizations heavily membered by government employees use tools like this in really distorting and self-serving ways, but I’ll stick to the task at hand. The salary survey provides me no value and, if separate, I would not pay a dime for it. Or even look at it if it were free.

So there we go. APA is arguing to me that I should renew because of all the benefits. If that were my sole criteria, I would not only not renew, I would ask for my money back.

So why would I ever consider renewing? It gets harder and harder to justify every year, but at the end of the day, I believe that this country needs great planners. We don’t need zoners, red tape bureaucrats, guardians of the system clinging to the status quo, protecting their turf through exclusionary certification programs. But we do need great planners.

  • We need planners out there tackling the big problems. And the little problems with great creativity.
  • We need them building value in their places, creating inter-generational wealth for their entire community.
  • We need them asking the tough questions, seeing beyond their narrow charge – their silo – and taking in the entire experience.
  • We need them designing amazing places with a deep understanding of place combined with an attention to detail that would make Walt Disney smile.
  • We need them constantly listening, observing and attempting to understand the subtle nuances they are charged with understanding.
  • We need them to be comfortable being uncomfortable.

Planners are the stewards of the future, the enhancers of the present and the protectors of the past. America needs great planners.

I’m slowly losing hope that the American Planning Association – the organization – will ever get beyond protecting its own bureaucracy and members to focus intently on reforms that would improve the actual practice of planning. The only reason I would consider renewing is that I know I’m not alone in that fear. Many of my fellow AICP certified planners feel likewise. I’m speaking out loudly in the hopes that they will have the confidence to prod gently in the ways they feel empowered to.